MLS Preview: Sporting Kansas City at Houston Dynamo

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  • Teams sit second, third in the Eastern Conference.
  • Houston has eliminated Kansas City from the last two postseasons.
  • Zusi, Besler out for Sporting; Garcia, Taylor missing for Houston.

Two years ago, Houston moved to the Eastern Conference. Ever since, the Dynamo have been the biggest obstacle between Sporting Kansas City and an MLS Cup final. Twice Sporting’s claimed first in the East, and twice it was rendered meaningless once eliminated by the Dynamo.

So Wednesday’s match in Houston (8:30 p.m. Eastern) should provide some insight as to where the teams stand with three weeks left in the season. Though Kansas City has made changes since last season — eschewing some Espinoza/Cesar brutality for a little Feilhaber/Rosell quality — Sporting’s on roughly the same level as last year. A win in Houston could hint this squad’s ready take the extra step. A stumble and not only will tracking down New York (and, the Supporters’ Shield) become  more difficult, but Kansas City will be given new reason to doubt by what’s turning into an old nemesis.

That may be reading too much into a regular season game (we’ll have to see how the match plays out), but given the familiarity the teams built in the last two postseasons, a match this late in the year’s bound to carry special meaning. For Houston, a team that’s had postseason success the last two seasons, perhaps getting into the playoffs will be enough, but for a Kansas City team that’s seen the Dynamo undermine their regular season success, a hiccup could leave a lasting effect.

Then there’s the little matter of the standings. Kansas City’s second in the East. Houston’s third. If those places hold, these teams meet for a homa-and-home in the conference semifinals. Third time’s a charm, right KC fans? Montréal, one point back of the Dynamo, have a game in hand, so tomorrow’s match may not be an outright playoff preview; regardless, we’re likely to learn a lot about how each team’s positioning themselves going into the postseason.

Houston will get a small boost from the return of Andrew Driver, the winger’s calf injury having sidelined him during the Dynamo’s recent surge. With Boniek Garcia on international duty, the Scot’s return comes at the perfect time, giving Dominic Kinnear an alternative to Jason Johnson wide.

The international break isn’t as forgiving for Sporting. Graham Zusi, the team’s best player going forward, will be with the U.S. national team, as will Matt Besler, half of the team’s league-best defensive duo. The depth at Peter Vermes’ disposal means quality options will be ready to step in, but with the difference between these sides so small to begin with, the loss of two key players could play a major part.

That in addition to the increased stakes for Houston provide a couple of reasons to see the Dynamo as favorites. Kansas City has the Supporters Shield in view, but they’re otherwise both securely in the playoffs and likely to finish in the East’s top two. Houston, on the other hand, are only four points clear of sixth. When deciding who’s more likely to win a game, always start with who wants it more.

Lose this weekend, and Houston could be back in a fight for their playoff lives. Win, and they move closer to avoiding another four-five, play-in game. They also move closer to a third-straight postseason meeting with Kansas City.